Book Review: My Side of the Mountain

Illustration from the book: Sam Gribley and his falcon, Frightful. And his homemade shirt with extra large pockets.

Naturalist and author Jean Craigshead George wrote My Side of the Mountain–the story of a boy from New York City who runs away to live on his own in the Catskill Mountains–in 1959.  Since then, it has won the Newbery Medal and been consistently ranked high in recommended reading lists for children. Recently I re-read My Side for the first time in many, many years. I suspect that many Root Simple readers will be familiar with this book, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

I’d rank this book as one of the most influential in my life. I read it in elementary school, and it burned its messages into my already-receptive neural pathways. My earliest memories are set in the Colorado Rockies–because that is where I lived when I was very young. By the time I was old enough to read My Side of the Mountain we’d moved on to Californian suburbs, but my early experience of the mountains made it seem quite reasonable to me not only that the main character, Sam, should be able to live on his own in the wilderness, but also that once I got a little older maybe I could do the same thing, too.

Continue reading…

Alternatives to the Funeral Industrial Complex

A casket made by the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey in Louisiana.

If there’s one business I’d like to see shut down and rethought it would be the funeral industry. I’m not going to mince words. The funeral directors I’ve had to deal with just wanted to turn grief into dollars. When my dad passed on his pastor warned me about what would happen at the funeral home, telling me that they would try to up-sell my mom and I. He said, “don’t let them try to equate money with love.” He was right. Even though everything was supposedly per-arranged the funeral director still tried to get us to buy more expensive items.

If treating individuals like this isn’t bad enough, the funeral industry works like a cartel to curtail the rights of any alternatives to their products and services. In Louisiana the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, staffed almost entirely by funeral directors, tried to shut down a group of monks who were making and selling simple wooden caskets. And let’s not even get into the horrific tales of abuse, theft of dental fillings, reusing graves, etc.

The good news is that there seems to be a growing alternative funeral movement. The monks won their court case. And I have a feeling that as the baby boomer generation begins to grasp its own mortality, we’ll begin to see more changes. Either that or the funeral industry will start marketing fake green burials (they probably have already).

What prompted this rant was a comment from a Root Simple reader asking if I knew of any green burials in Southern California. I don’t. If any of you know of any alternative funeral services in Southern California, please leave a comment. I’m also interested in hearing about the experiences of readers outside of our region. Have you participated in a DIY funeral? Do you know of any resources for opting out of the funeral industry?

The Perfect Chicken Coop?

Do a Google image search for “chicken coop” and a solid majority of the results will look very much like this nearly 100 year old coop featured in The Gardener’s and Poultry Keeper’s Guide and Illustrated Catalog. Why is this basic design still with us?

  • The attached run gives chickens some space to scratch around in while keeping them safe from predators if you can’t make it home by dark.
  • You can hang a feeder in the space under the hen house to keep their feed dry.
  • The run is tall enough to stand in.
  • You can put an access door to the nesting box from the outside so you don’t have to go in the coop to collect eggs.
  • It has a roof over the run to keep your chickens dry.

It’s the basic form I used for our coop with a few refinements–I ran hardware cloth under run to keep out burrowing predators. I also extended the run to keep the chickens from pecking at each other (the more room they have the better).

To paraphrase Nassim Taleb for the second time in a week, if a given design has been around for at least a hundred years, the odds are it will be around for many more years. While this particular arrangement may not work in all situations (mobile runs or “chicken tractors” may be a better option for some), this coop design does have a lot going for it for us urban dwellers.

What To Do With Old Vegetable Seeds

In short, throw them around.

We’ve got a lot of expired seed packages sitting in a shoe box. And I’ve been reading a newly published translation of a book by the late, “natural farmer” Masanobu Fukuoka (review coming soon). Fukuoka inspired me to distribute those old seeds around our micro-orchard to see what comes up.

Fukuoka has some tips in his book The Natural Way of Farming for creating a semi-wild vegetable garden:

  • Include nitrogen fixers (in my case some clover seeds)
  • Use daikon and other radishes to break up hard soil
  • Sow before weeds emerge

Scott Kleinrock has used the same strategy at the Huntington Gardens. Here’s what his semi-wild vegetable garden, growing in the understory of some small fruit trees, looked like in January of this year:

And there you have it–vegetable gardening with a fraction of the work.

Why You Should Avoid Staking Trees

The correct way to stake a tree. Image from the Vacaville Tree Foundation

To answer the question of why tree staking should be avoided, one can turn to the latest Extension Service advice or to the nearly 2000 year old words of Seneca:

No tree becomes rooted and sturdy unless many a wind assails it. For by its very tossing it tightens its grip and plants its roots more securely; the fragile trees are those that have grown in a sunny valley. It is, therefore, to the advantage even if good men, to the end that they may be unafraid, to live constantly amidst alarms and to bear with patience the happenings which are ills to him only who ill supports them.

Moving from practical philosophical advice to practical horticultural advice, let’s say you have a tree from the nursery that is too weak to stand on it’s own. Or you need to stake a tree planted in a public place to keep people from pulling on it. What do you do? Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D., Extension Horticulturist at Washington State University has some advice:

•    If trees must be staked, place stakes as low as possible but no higher than 2/3 the height of the tree.
•    Materials used to tie the tree to the stake should be flexible and allow for movement all the way down to the ground so that trunk taper develops correctly.
•    Remove all staking material after roots have established. This can be as early as a few months, but should be no longer than one growing season

Now, back to the philosophical: Seneca’s tree analogy is a good example of a system that benefits from chaos and shock. This idea is the subject of Nassim Taleb’s new book on what he calls “anti-fragility“.

By contrast, natural or organic systems are antifragile: They need some dose of disorder in order to develop. Deprive your bones of stress and they become brittle. This denial of the antifragility of living or complex systems is the costliest mistake that we have made in modern times. Stifling natural fluctuations masks real problems, causing the explosions to be both delayed and more intense when they do take place. As with the flammable material accumulating on the forest floor in the absence of forest fires, problems hide in the absence of stressors, and the resulting cumulative harm can take on tragic proportions.

For more advice on tree staking see:

North Carolina State University’s Staking Recent Transplants

University of Minnesota’s guide to Staking and Guying Trees

Linda Chalker-Scott’s pdf on The Myth of Staking

Update: Please note an exception to these tree staking rules regarding certain kinds of dwarf fruit trees. See the comments for the details. Thanks C.

Saturday Linkages: Cat Houses, Office Gyms, Cooking in Compost and More . . .

A cat house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Makin’

Gourmet meal cooked in compost: http://www.7dvt.com/2012earthiest-roast …

The Fixer’s Manifesto http://manifesto.sugru.com 

Short film about Safecast, the hackerspace-created, crowdsource radioactivity monitoring project http://boingboing.net/2012/11/21/short-film-about-safecast-the.html …

Vintage Cat House Designed by the Office of Frank Lloyd Wright – http://www.moderncat.net/2012/11/09/vintage-cat-house-designed-by-the-office-of-frank-lloyd-wright/ …

Just in time for the holidays . . .

How to “unshop” on Black Friday: http://wp.me/p2H7hX-v 

Office Gyms

Treadmill Desk http://livingsmallblog.com/2010/06/07/treadmill-desk/ …

Bikes

Next Steps For The Bike Movement In Santa Monica (p. 2/2) http://la.streetsblog.org/2012/11/20/next-steps-for-the-bike-movement-in-santa-monica-p-22/#.UKwAP7vnRYI.twitter …

One for the Dustbin: The 85th Percentile Rule in Traffic Engineering http://streetsblog.net/2012/11/16/one-for-the-dustbin-the-85th-percentile-rule-in-traffic-engineering/#.UKhxrZ-16m0.twitter …

For these links and more, follow Root Simple on Twitter:


What’s Your Personal Food Policy?

Tom’s got a policy. Do you?

The Thanksgiving holiday brings together an often incompatible assembly of  vegetarians, paleoterians, pescatearians, breatharians and folks who just don’t give a damn, to share a meal. While I’m sure many family gatherings pass without controversy, many of the readers of this blog probably end up in uncomfortable discussions about where our food comes from. It’s a holiday that provokes a consideration of what Mark Bittman calls our “personal food policy.”

The point Bittman makes about developing a personal food policy is that our choices at the dinner table make a difference. We all have to eat and we vote with our supermarket dollars. Just as our Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack helps craft our nation’s schizophrenic food policies, I thought the Thanksgiving holiday would be an appropriate moment to define my own personal food policy.

But as I started to write down my personal food policy I discovered so many contradictions and exceptions that I just stopped. My own personal food policy, when considered honestly, was almost as tangled as the USDA’s. Yes, sometimes we manage to grow all of our greens, but other times bugs/bad soil/forgetfulness in the garden sends us on a trip to our local discount Armenian supermarket. Other times we’re so busy that we pick up prepared crap at Trader Joes. And frankly, my personal food policy, started to sound a bit holier than thou. As Rumi says,

Spiritual arrogance is the ugliest of all things.
It’s like a day that’s cold and snowy,
and your clothes are wet too!

One issue, however, that over the years I’ve come to feel strongly about is factory raised meat. I just can’t eat it anymore. It used to be that, out of courtesy, I’d eat anything served to me when I’m a guest at another person’s house. I’m not sure I can still do this. As Michael Pollan says, “Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do.” And those walls have become transparent to me. I’ll happily eat meat, but only if I know it was humanely raised or hunted.

So, dear Root Simple readers, what’s your personal food policy?

And, of course, Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Butterfly Barrier Failure

So my idea about using 1/2 inch bird netting as a cabbage leaf worm butterfly barrier? Failure. Above is the photographic evidence–a butterfly caught within the netting.

So two alternatives:

  • Floating row cover (inconvenient and too warm for our climate)
  • More biodiversity in the garden

I’m liking the biodiversity option the best. Planting a bunch of brassicas is like opening an all you can eat buffet for cabbage leaf worms. Our backyard has more biodiversity and fewer problems with pests. I used better (homemade) compost  in the raised beds in the backyard, thus the soil in these beds also has greater microbial biodiversity